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Kamarck, Edward (ed.) / Arts in society: the arts and the black revolution

Hill, Herbert
The negro writer and the creative imagination,   pp. [244 and 245]-255 PDF (11.0 MB)

Page 248

248      from the liberalism  of an early article
like "Tokenism" to the later radicalism
of his essay on "The Revolutionary
Theatre" but throughout the book,
acting like a binding theme, is a clear
cut view of evil. Thus LeRoi Jones
has moved from the U.S.A. to a
place he calls "Black."
LeRoi Jones' A System of Dante's Hell
has been called a novel by the publisher.
But this is not a novel in the usual
sense of the term, because the
traditional structure of a novel, its
concern with plot and characters, is
significantly lacking. One senses
that the author is deliberately flaunting
the traditional concern of the novelist
for narrative, because the story he tells is
his own story, his own special, private
story, and if he is to communicate it
to someone else, he must invoke a chaos
that defies conventional means. Thus
the experience of Dante's Hell must
remain somewhat ambiguous. Perhaps
all hell, whether it be that of LeRoi
Jones' private world, or that of Dante
himself, or of anyone else's for that
matter, remains finally, somewhat
inexplicable. Mystery and the demons
have often walked hand in hand.
Frequently in the past the tragic hero in
novels written by American Negroes
was the Negro who in an infinite variety
of ways is destroyed as the victim
of white society. However, in the most
recent work of William Melvin Kelley,
Dem (1967), the white people, the
"oppressors" become the victims of
their own fantasies about Negroes.
While Kelley suggested this theme in
an earlier novel, A Different Drummer
(1962), and in several short stories,
in Dem he goes beyond the theme of
racial injustice to a powerful indictment of
the entire American society. In
accordance with his perception of the
"social facts" William Melvin Kelley
veers off in a new direction. Kelley is
not interested in characterization in
order to understand and develop
"characters" in a novelistic ta:e but he
is very much interested in the
representations of character, as a
playwright might be; the situation
reveals the character, not the character
in the situation. It is situation, the
decisive circumstance, that interests
Kelley and, because of this, he makes
the role of personalities among the
white figures highly stylized in contrast
to the individualized Negro characters.
This imparts a bitter comic quality
to the whites' constant confusion about
who is who. How do you tell them apart,
especially when it becomes crucial to
one's own identity to do so.
The whites are drawn with a stereotyped
savageness that in the past characterized
the way whites wrote about Negroes.
But Kelley does not do it merely for
propaganda purposes alone; the
interplay of the blurred stereotypes
with those who are individual
personalities suggests possibilities that
go far beyond the narrative.
The strong poetic tradition of American
Negro literature continues to be alive
today although some fine talents live
and die in obscurity. One of the most
important of these whose work is certain
to receive a belated recognition, was
Melvin B. Tolson who for more than
a quarter of a century wrote some of
the richest and most imaginative poetry
of our time, and who until his last
years (he died in 1966) received
little recognition.
In 1953 Tolson's Libretto for the
Republic of Liberia was published to
celebrate the Liberian Centennial.
In his Libretto Tolson wrote:

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